Pioneering Critical Criminology in Canada

By Ratner, R. S. | Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Pioneering Critical Criminology in Canada


Ratner, R. S., Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice


Seeding barren ground

This is a good time to interrogate the status of critical criminology in Canada, since it is not entirely clear whether the development of the field portends a resurgent or a recessionary trend. In this article, which I regard as a reflective prelude to such an inquiry--one taken up more concretely in the balance of this issue of the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice--I offer a somewhat personalized account of my efforts to animate the critical criminology field in Anglo-Canada. (2) I do so not in order to draw attention to my role in the organizational shaping of that perspective but to provide the reader with a "keyhole" glimpse of some of the trials endured in constructing an alternative to the ruling paradigm of a state-saturated field. Nor am I focusing here on the substantive content of a fully "critical" criminology (3) as much as on the procedural hurdles that invariably arise to blunt challenges to a prevailing orthodoxy. If I seek to retrace these frustrations through the prism of my own experiences, given the centrality of my role in the formative period, by no means do I wish to minimize the important contributions of many other such "pioneers"; but what illumination I can provide is more easily conveyed through recalling my own struggles to break new ground. Thus, I will refer, by name, to only a few colleagues with whom I worked directly, recognizing, nevertheless, that anything achieved was ultimately a collective endeavour.

My own entry into criminology began in 1967 when I began teaching sociology courses at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I was assigned, with little regard to my academic background, to an early-morning course on deviance that quickly became a venue for pushing American texts (a la Becker and Goffman), a practice engaged in by most newly minted, culturally boorish American PhDs recruited to Canada by status-minded department heads. Notwithstanding my shallow level of expertise, once listed in the calendar as teaching Deviance I was called on by the Centre of Continuing Education at UBC to participate in various symposia, conferences, and curriculum-development efforts intended to stimulate public interest in criminology programs offered or contemplated by the centre. Keystone proposals involved consideration of a Criminology School that would offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminology and a Criminology Certificate Programme that would provide a "liberal arts" orientation to practitioners in the criminal-justice field.

The school proposal went down quickly, as the law faculty objected, on what struck me as elitist grounds, to the alleged undesirability of "cops on campus" and the social-work faculty resisted the idea, fearing that a criminology faculty would occupy their own turf. The opposition of entrenched professional schools at UBC sank the proposal; consequently, the first "Anglo" school of criminology in Canada was located at Simon Fraser University--a relatively new institution--in 1975. The process of arriving at this decision reinforced my impression that the university to which I belonged was a conservative bastion, loath to accommodate a new and potentially troublesome discipline. As for the Criminology Certificate Programme--a certain moneymaker for Continuing Studies--that program was approved (given its peripheral status) and ran for several years until it was disbanded by a dean's review committee on no definable grounds other than the suspicion that it was too "radical." While these engagements and several others, including my work as chair of the Prisoners' Rights Committee of the BC Civil Liberties Association, cultivated an appreciation for the complexities involved in the transmission of criminal justice, I also began to realize, as perhaps I should already have known, that underlying all these administrative exercises were deep-seated values embedded in ideological positions that were often unacknowledged yet determinative. …

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